Saturday 7 November 2020

Berkeley Bandit: Sports car production to restart after 60 years

source - Berkeley Coachworks

News from Bedfordshire now of the revival of a sports car company you've probably never heard of, which is a shame as Berkeley Cars had the potential to be one of the foremost lightweight sports car manufacturers to have emerged from the fashion for microcars as a result of the Suez oil crisis of the late 1950s, and could have been a real competitor to the likes of Lotus and Austin-Healey going into the 1960s.

Berkeley Cars began life as a between British automotive engineer and designer Lawrence "Lawrie" Bond, who is best known in the U.K. for the three-wheeled microcars that bore his name - the Bond Minicars of the '50s and early '60s, the Model 875 from the late '60s and the quirky Bug that was the company's last bizarre hurrah following its acquisition by rivals Reliant in the 1970s - and Charles Panter, owner of Berkeley Coachworks, then one of the largest manufacturers of caravans in Britain.  Panter has been enjoying much success with the use of glass-reinforced fibre - otherwise known as fibreglass - in the construction of his caravans and was keen to employ it in sports cars, as a supplement the seasonal caravan market.  His collaboration with Bond began in 1956 with the creation of the Berkeley Sports (officially designated the Type SA322, in reference to the engine capacity), a pretty little two-seat roadster that debuted at the London Motor Show in September of that year - 12 months before the similarly-conceived Lotus Elite.

A 1956 Berkeley SA322 Sports (with a Bond Minicar of similar
vintage in the background.
source - Wikipædia

As with all microcars of the period the Berkeley was powered by a motorcycle engine - in the case of the SA322 a two-cylinder, two-stroke, air-cooled British Anzani motor of 322cc that put out all of 15bhp.  While this may sound laughably low for any car even of that time and especially for something purporting to be a sporty roadster, the benefit of the fibreglass used in the three-piece monocoque bodyshell (which did away with the need for a conventional chassis) meant that the Sports weighed in at an incredibly light 274kg - barely ¼ of a ton - with the result of impressive acceleration and a top speed of 70mph (which I'm sure would have felt substantially faster in a little thing like that!). 

1958 Berkeley Foursome
source - Wikimedia Commons

The Berkeley Sports was gradually refined over the course of the following three years mainly through the use of more powerful engines, from the 18hp 3-cylinder Excelsior found in the 1957 SE328 model to the heady 30hp version of the same motor that powered the Twosome and Foursome (SE492) of 1958 - the latter a stretched four-seat variant of the original Sports model.  Top speeds rose progressively to over 80mph while fuel consumption still hovered around the 50-60mpg mark - a useful and welcome performance balance as fuel restrictions continued to bite.  Berkeleys even enjoyed some achievements in international rallies, with Stirling Moss’s sister Pat racing a SE328 in the 1958 Liège-Brescia-Liège Rally.  The brand proved popular in the U.S. export market too, with many examples finding their way across the Pond to America where the small British sportscar was also experiencing much success and where several still survive to this day as the accompanying video (top) shows.

A 1960 Berkeley B95
source - Wikipædia

March 1959 saw the biggest departure from the traditional Berkeley formula to date with the introduction of a new design - the B95 (above) and B105 - at the Geneva Motor Show.  This was the first to use a series of four-stroke 2-cylinder engines again borrowed from a motorcycle manufacturer, this time Royal Enfield's 40bhp Super Meteor for the B95 and their 50bhp Constellation in the B105 (allowing the latter to exceed 100mph for the first time - both cars' names deriving from their official top speeds).

A 1960 Berkeley T60
source - Wikimedia Commons

Later in 1959 Berkeley launched perhaps its quirkiest vehicle but one that so successfully tapped into the prevailing motoring conditions of the time that it became the marque's single most popular model (discounting the combined production of the various Sports versions) with over 1800 built - the quaint little three-wheeled T60.  With the effects of the Suez Crisis still biting and with British motoring law classing any three-wheeled vehicle under a certain weight and engine size as a motorcycle & sidecar, the fact that cars like the T60 could be driven on a motorcycle licence and taxed more cheaply than its four-wheeled competitors made it the sports car of choice for the enthusiast on a budget.  A year on and the T60 was joined by the T60/4 which, like the Foursome, was a stretched version with two occasional seats in the back

The sole surviving 1960 Berkeley Bandit
source - Wikipædia

Unfortunately by the end of 1960 Berkeley Coachworks' fortunes were on the wane, the victim of a downturn in the caravan market that year (combined with the cars' complex engineering and the false perception of the two-stroke engines' unreliability - particularly in the States) which eventually saw the company cease manufacturing entirely and enter administration in December.  Just before the axe fell Berkeley was working on its most mainstream project yet - the Bandit (above), a smart-looking 2-seat roadster that would have used the 1-litre four-cylinder Ford engine also found in the Anglia.  Another advanced fibreglass design the Bandit also had the direct input of Ford's industrial might but this was not enough to save the company from liquidation and only two prototypes were produced (one of which still survives today) before the business collapsed.  Attempts to sell Berkeley as a going concern to Bond Cars' owners Sharps' Commercials Ltd came to naught and although replicas and "continuation models" were produced by various different companies in both Britain and New Zealand into the 1990s the marque has languished in relative obscurity.

source - Berkeley Coachworks

Until now, that is, with the welcome news that Berkeley Cars has returned to its original home base of Biggleswade in Bedfordshire amid plans to produce a limited number of handsome-looking new sports cars that look to pay homage to the original racy microcars of the '50s both in performance and design.  The company appears to be aware of the limitations inherent in the niche sportscar market with its aim to make no more than sixty examples of the new Bandit and although £40-60k may sound a lot for a relatively unknown start-up it is about right for the market particularly given the advanced nature of the construction and powertrains.  I'm especially interested to note the proposed use of plant-based substances in place of more common modern lightweight materials such as carbon-fibre, which should give the new Bandit a very competitive kerb weight and thus excellent performance.  On that front there are more exciting-sounding forward-looking plans, with the suggestion of electric, fuel cell and even hydrogen power being offered alongside more conventional petrol options. 

All in all it looks to be a very interesting proposal and one that I hope succeeds and then some.  An advanced, lightweight roadster which uses modern, sustainable technology while still nodding to its past would be a welcome addition to the British sportscar ranks and I wish the new Berkeley Coachworks business well, with better fortunes than its innovative and inspirational predecessor.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Don't just sit there, type something! I enjoy reading all friendly and positive comments.


Popular Posts